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Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-03-25 23:20:56

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - Rank S

Developer: Infinity Ward
Publisher: Activision
Date: 11/5/07

Also available for PlayStation 3 and PC

Hella w00t! Awesome game. Simply astounding. So much so that I'm reduced to fragment sentences. Infinity Ward is back in full force. They would have won an unprecedented second Direman Press Game of the Year award if it wasn't for BioShock. Call of Duty 4 finally escapes the oversaturated World War II genre, updating the franchise into a fictional, but plausible, contemporary setting. The various Tom Clancy franchises (Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon) have been put on notice, as Call of Duty 4's presentation and intensity hardcore fists the techno-thriller military genre.

The single player campaign plays out like a fun Bruckheimer movie (think The Rock, not Armageddon). The emphasis on "cinematic immersion" is abundantly visible. The development crew must have viewed Black Hawk Down a bazillion times, and the game blatantly quotes films, referencing everything from Aliens to Apocalypse Now and even Airplane! The game is a visual wonder, from the initial mission where you (as a member of the badass British S.A.S.) chopper deploy onto a swaying freighter ship backlit by a midnight lightning storm, to larger thunderous battles (sorry, "low intensity conflicts") where the U.S. Marines attempt to thwart the requisite plot of global terrorism/threat of nuclear devastation. Call of Duty 4 is arguably the best looking "next-gen" game to date. Their proprietary game engine certainly looks crisper than the glitchy Unreal engine that just about every videogame seems to run on these days.

It's also clear that Infinity Ward has learned some lessons from Valve (they of the Half-Life franchise). There's a much stronger emphasis on first-person storytelling; the opening credits are laid over a sequence where you are dragged and driven through the streets in the midst of a violent revolution, capped by shooting you right in the face. Call of Duty 4 grabs you by the collar and thrusts you into the game with these shocking moments. This is the first Call of Duty game where the characters are more than cardboard cutouts; your squadmates are actually sympathetic and likable, and some of the plot twists should shock you (no big spoilers, but war is fucked up and not everyone survives).

The mechanics feel just about flawless. Call of Duty 4 is spot on, from lining up an enemy down the gunsights, to the accurate feel and sound of the firearms, to the new emphasis on bullet penetration (different types of cover provide varying resistance to ballistic impact), to the rock solid frame rate and kick-ass surround sound. Rarely does a game get the kinetic experience just right; Call of Duty 4 is one of them, and it persuasively communicates its environment. It simply feels tangible and solid, with convincing consequences of interacting with the physics of the gun in your hands and the world around you. The controls are tight and responsive. The pacing feels great too; I used to play a lot of paintball in high school, and Call of Duty 4 has a realistic speed and tempo. I much prefer it to the plodding floatiness of Halo or the frenetic blitzkrieg of Quake.

There's also a nice variety of gameplay. The bulk of Call of Duty 4 consists of intense infantry combat, but a few unique sequences serve to relieve you of "firefight fatigue". One of them has you manning the weapon systems of an AC-130 gunship, circling high above the engagement. You provide covering bombardment for the soldiers on the ground (one of whom you were just playing), and the entire experience is clinical, technologically cold, and almost relaxing. Whereas you can feel the heat and grime and weapons impact as an infantryman, the electronic display of the AC-130 pulls you out of that; the clearly massive explosions of your 105mm howitzer shells are distant and muffled, and it's not difficult to imagine that you're pulling the trigger from an air-conditioned mechanical sky fortress. There's also a fantastic sniper mission involving stealth, the likes of which has never before been seen in a video game.

However, all is not perfect. Despite the massive overhaul and change of setting, Modern Warfare is clearly a Call of Duty game, with all of its traditional strengths and weaknesses. You're continually funneled down an artificial corridor gauntlet, without any freedom of choice. Whether it's a series of walls and barricades, or radioactive zones that you're unable to function in, you're seeing exactly what Infinity Ward wants you to see, and playing exactly what they want you to play. This does have its advantages, as event triggers are easier to implement and manage, but this setup is starting to show its age. At its worst, it feels archaic and forced. This is particularly noticeable on the higher difficulty levels, when the game deteriorates into a series of trial and error memorization exercises. "Right. This time, I'll throw a flashbang and charge that left corner, shoot the two guys on the upper floor, reload, then toss a frag...etc." The artificial intelligence of the enemies is mundane, and primarily relies on the "tactic" of overwhelming you with numbers. Also, there is no cooperative campaign mode, a feature expected of modern shooters. I understand that this may have been a deliberate design choice, as it would have been difficult to extend the first person narrative to encompass the perspective of another character, but it still feels like a massive oversight considering that you are always companioned with fellow soldiers.

As solid as the single player experience is, the multiplayer component of Call of Duty 4 is preposterously good. It captures the addictingly fun essence of Counter-Strike and marries it with the addictingly, er, addicting grind of World of Warcraft. Up to 18 players (32 on the PC) can assemble their class kits and weapon loadouts, and hit up every major player vs. player game type, with the notable exception of Capture the Flag. I'm glad CTF was left out; it's the single most non-authentic "military operation" there is. Call of Duty 4 even blatantly lifts bombing/defusing objectives from Counter-Strike.

Now here's the real evil: you gain experience for kills, objectives, and wins. As you rank up from lowly Private 2nd Class to Five Star Supreme Allied Commander, you gain access to a wider selection of gear and abilities. And when you max out, you're not done! You can wipe back to Level 1 in exchange for a Prestige marker. And you can do this ten times for fancier Prestige ranks. Call of Duty 4 is easily one of my favorite online game experiences of all time. The insidious urge to hit the next level, even the need to acquire (and reacquire after Prestiging) some piddlingly insignificant scope upgrade or completing the next challenge will keep me coming back to this game for a very long time.

There's a wide array of weapons, covering assault rifles, sub-machineguns, light machineguns, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Each of these can then be customized with various scopes, silencers, and grips. Next, you give yourself three "perks", such as Extreme Conditioning which allows you to sprint longer and cover more ground, or Juggernaut which makes you tougher and able to absorb extra damage. The only one I intensely dislike is Martyrdom: when you die, you drop a live grenade, giving you a chance to kill your killer. It's annoying and cheap, and players shouldn't be rewarded for dying. The end result is that players will typically run away from fresh corpses, disrupting the flow of combat. Infinity Ward, if you ever read this, I have a simple fix: patch Martyrdom to require you to actually have a grenade. If a player has thrown all of their frags, they won't be able to Martyrdom. This wouldn't alleviate the frustration entirely, but would prevent the extreme abuse of explosives.

It's the combination of visceral gameplay and the flexibility of putting together your class that really separates Call of Duty 4 from its competitors. You can tailor your gear and abilities to suit your style of play, and even though I've finished every last Prestige and unlocked just about everything, I'm still having fun experimenting with new combinations. On top of that, Call of Duty 4 rewards you for doing well. At three kills in a row, you're able to bring in a UAV, granting your team a radar that reveals enemy positions. At five kills, you can call in an airstrike, and at seven, an attack chopper hovers in to decimate the enemy team. The multiplayer is dauntingly punishing to new players, but it's extremely rewarding once your skills improve.

I also dig Call of Duty 4's multiplayer component because it clearly separates those who possess tactical ability from those who don't. And by "tactical", I don't mean "slow". Too many gamers use that word to refer exclusively to the slow paced turn-based gameplay of RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea. Even the plodding breach-and-take-a-room Rainbow Six use of the word is misleading - that's the definition as used by SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). I'm referring to fast flowing on-the-fly battlefield tactics. There's a constant stream of information available to you in Call of Duty 4: your immediate field of vision, UAV recon, reports of enemy fire, audio of footsteps and weapons discharges, and the condition of any objectives. If you're able to identify the best lanes of fire (kill zones) and process all of this intel properly, you can place yourself in a position to score easy kills. All of the run-and-gun Halo players won't stand a chance against you. This is especially true in objective based game types, particularly Domination. This mode allows you to establish a Main Line of Resistance, allowing you to not worry about enemies spawning haphazardly behind your position. This most closely resembles an actual combat situation. Click the link to read my Call of Duty 4 multiplayer guide.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is an exceptional game that belongs in any shooter fan's game library. Every version of the game is top notch, but I recommend the Xbox 360 version on the slim tiebreaker of Xbox Live functionality and achievement points. The PlayStation 3 version lacks rumble, and the dearth of people with headsets renders communication and teamwork an exercise in futility. The triggers are also terrible. The PC version offers the preciseness of mouse and keyboard (which I deem unrealistic after actually firing some of the real life counterparts of the weapons in the game, thanks Joel!), but the issues of hacks and cheats demolish the integrity of online play.

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